Mayan culture came into being sometime around the 1st millennium B.C. During this period, the Mayans settled down into an agrarian lifestyle and these settlements grew into towns and cities by 500 B.C. Mayans soon evolved an advanced knowledge of astronomy, a written language of their own, an elaborate mathematical system as well as an accurate calendar.
Although they borrowed heavily from the previous Olmec civilisation that existed in the region, they perfected many cultural elements and created their own unique blend of cultural traits. The Mayan culture specifically prospered in Mesoamerica from 300 B.C. to 850 B.C. after which it underwent rapid decline and collapse.
Mayans had an advanced writing system which was called hieroglyphics since it comprised entirely of symbols and images. The basic alphabets of this written language were glyphs, which presented a word or a phrase either through phonetic image or directly through a single symbol. Mayan written language had nearly 800 of such glyphs which were used by the Mayan priests to pen down books on subjects ranging from astronomy to history and mythology.
A vital aspect of the Mayan culture was the monumental architecture that the Mayans built. They were renowned as excellent builders and devised techniques and unique materials to make their buildings durable. The most common structure built by the Mayans was a pyramid-temple, with many of such structures existent in each Mayan city. Mayans also invented an extraordinary mortar of their own which helped them build such durable buildings that they exist to this day, having withstood earthquakes, invaders and history. Mayan architecture can still be seen in the ruins of many Mayan cities.
Mayans had a very rich mythology which is extant today thanks to Popul Vuh, a Mayan codex which survived the Spanish conquest. The book of Popul Vuh elaborates on the mythology of the Mayans, with special emphasis on the Mayan creation mythology. Mayans believed that humanity and the world was created in several rounds by the gods. And at the end of the last four rounds, gods were unsatisfied and destroyed the world. Mayans also had different tales in their mythology. Most notable among these is the saga of the Hero Twins which, it is believed, is the mythological basis of the Mayan ballgame.
Mayans had a large pantheon of gods. They usually worshipped gods related to natural and celestial phenomenon, such as the sun god, rain god, god of thunder and others. Since Mayans believed in a multi-layered cosmology, they believed that gods lived in the heavenly realm and the underworld while humans lived in the middle world. According to Mayans, 13 gods lived in the 13 levels of the heavens while 9 gods lived in the underworld. There was minor difference between the deities of different Mayan cities, with some cities having a few of their own unique deities.
Ritual human sacrifice was a regular part of Mayan religious practises. Mayans believed that offering the life of a brave person was highly treasured by the gods who, in turn, guarded humans against catastrophes. As a result, Mayans often offered ritual human sacrifices. These were usually offered on top of pyramid-temples and carried out by a priest. In most cases, the priest took out the victim’s heart through an incision in the breast and offered it to the gods.
Mayans were fond of sports but like all other cultural aspects of the Mayan society, sports also had a religious meaning for the Mayans. The most popular sport by far was the ballgame. Mayans believed that the ballgame was a contest between life and death. As such, they thought that a match of ballgame represented the underworld. The game was played between two teams of players and involved a rubber ball which had to be hit through a large hoop. Most ballgame concluded with a ritual human sacrifice as a celebration of life against death.
Mayan cosmological beliefs were as rich as their mythology. Mayans believed that a cosmological tree stood at the centre of the universe. This tree, according to Mayans, connected the three realms of the cosmos and rising out of the underworld and through the world, rose to the height of the heavenly realm. Mayans believed that the tree also represented the four cardinal directions.
The elite in the Mayan society were patrons of art. Mayan society had a large social class of artisans and craftsmen. Although these artisans and craftsmen hailed from the commoner class, they were esteemed above the commoners because of their skill. Mayan art included elaborate jewelry made from precious metals, masks made from materials such as jade, figurines made from wood and obsidian and ceramics depicting scenes of Mayan daily life. Other forms of art included murals and frescoes painted on the walls of Mayan architecture and stucco masks.
Warfare was a regular part of the Mayan culture. This was primarily because Mayans believed they needed to offer human sacrifices frequently. And to do so, they were often in need of human victims. The main aim of Mayan warriors in waging war was to capture victims alive and to bring them back to their cities for ritual sacrifice. The warriors were specifically trained in combat and were honoured with enhanced social status if they proved their worth in the battlefield. A common weapon wielded by Mayan warriors was the atlatl, a contraption used to throw thin, iron-tipped spears.
The Mayan society was divided into distinct social classes. At the top of the hierarchy was the royalty. Next to the royalty was the nobility and the priestly class, both of which wielded immense influence. The nobility was tasked with administrative tasks and occupied civic and military positions. Priestly class was tasked with overlooking religious rituals and sacrifices, educating the children of the nobility and generally advice the king. At the bottom of the social ladder were the commoners who comprised 90% of the population. They were usually engaged in hunting, farming and labour.